Reading through Hope Not Hate’s latest report on their surveys of English attitudes towards race and immigration, one comes away with a mix of optimism and pessimism. Those of us who are what the organisation describes as “confident multiculturals” – or what the tabloids would describe as out-of-touch liberal elitists – can be heartened by what seem to be an increase in our ranks. We now make up 22% of the sample, up from 8% in the first survey in 2011. The two most pro-immigrant groups now make up 39% of the overall total.
At the other end of the spectrum, those who are “hostile” to immigration have remained consistent, but with a shift from those who are most fiercely opposed – down from 13% to 5% since 2011 – to the group described as “latently hostile,” up to 17% from 10% in the same period. This indicates that even those people harbouring anti-immigrant views are more likely to engage with the political process than to resort to direct violence themselves or support it in others.
Analysis May says Islamophobia is a form of extremism, marking shift in rhetoric
The prime minister had previously made it clear her ‘drive against extremism’ was aimed at radical Islamist ideology
However, the report also details a significant rise in anti-Muslim sentiment. 42%of people said that the recent terrorist attacks have increased their suspicion of Muslims in Britain, including many of those in the more liberal groups. Around 50% of people would be willing to see relaxation of human rights protections to “help fight terrorism,” and a similar proportion see Islam itself as “a threat to the west”.
Only 10% of the population see themselves as being “similar” to Muslims. This baseline perception of fundamental difference seems to reinforce the stereotype that immigrants fail to integrate and also, ironically, opposition to wanting them to do so. Muslims themselves are, overall, much more in favour of children from different backgrounds going to school together as a measure to improve integration, compared with the population at large.
This polarisation is worrying because it provides more evidence that England is failing to resist the processes of cumulative extremism, or what academic Douglas Pratt calls “reactive co-radicalisation”, in which extremist conceptions of “the other” become normalised across the population. In such an environment, responses to violence themselves triggers counter-responses in a vicious cycle of increased suspicion and enmity.
Media presentations of Islam and Muslims are doubtless contributing to this process. As Pratt says in his essay Islam as Feared Other, the religion is portrayed as “de facto oppositional” to “European” culture, so fundamentally different that its mere existence threatens our own. The conception of Islam in the current nationalist imagination is not so different from the antisemitic or anti-black tropes of history (which, of course, haven’t gone away), and incorporates elements of both. The fear of the primitive savage and the fear of the invading alien culture poisoning western culture from within are both old racist tropes reworked for a modern Islamophobic discourse.
Even the shift towards increased political engagement by those with extremely anti-immigrant views provides little comfort if those people are simply becoming more confident that the state will effectively carry out policies based on this rising fear of the other. With an increasingly rightwing Conservative party in power, the decline of Ukip, and street-based far right groups such as the British National party (BNP) and English Defence League (EDL) may not signify a positive trend of increasing tolerance for difference. This may, instead, signify that the Islamophobic demands of the far right have been increasingly incorporated into our mainstream politics.
It is easy to see how politicians, pulled to and fro as they are by electoral concerns, could find themselves tempted to pander to these fears. The path of least resistance is always to position yourself against the current enemies. Many seem to believe that they can play both sides, by denouncing obvious crimes by the “othered” population while providing boilerplate “but not all of them, of course” disclaimers to provide cover for their nudge-nudge-wink-wink invocation of racist tropes.
It’s difficult to know who does this cynically and who has simply found themselves befuddled through failure to properly appreciate the environment in which they speak. It’s unlikely that Sarah Champion, for example, set out to consciously perpetuate the “dark men raping our women” trope when she wrote the piece for the Sun that led to her resignation from the shadow cabinet, yet she did so anyway. Abi Wilkinson unpicked the contradictions in the narrative in the wake of the sexual assaults during Cologne’s 2016 new year celebration: in the west “only women who conform to strict rules about appropriate behaviour deserve not to be assaulted” by white men with status, but if the assailants are refugees from Islamic countries this is presented as not simply an individual crime but a clash of civilisational values.
It is not good enough for politicians, especially those on the left or liberal side, to plead ignorance of how their clumsy attempts to play both sides would be “misinterpreted”. Nor is it acceptable to try to sell immigration simply as an economic benefit, delivering a ready supply of low-waged fruit-pickers or nurses.
Our society is, despite everything, moving slowly and tentatively towards being more open and less bigoted, but this cannot be presumed to be a natural process that will continue indefinitely without hard work from progressives. To preserve it, we need to actively resist the dangerous and divisive strains of bigotry in our society, not simply hope they go away by themselves.